For decades, data and popular opinion has suggested that young people are less likely to vote or get involved in politics. But for the 2020 general election, both Harvard Polls and what has already been observed in early voter turnout data show that decades of attempts to get young people to “rock the vote” may have finally paid off.
Those between the ages of 18-29 are ranked as the least likely group to vote of any age-based demographic, and tend to vote 30% less in general election cycles and 40% less during midterm election cycles when compared to voters over the age of 60.
“Young people have always voted at lower rates,” John Barry Ryan, an associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University who specializes in electoral voting, said. “Older people believe that their generations were very politically active when they were young, but that wasn’t really true.”
Ryan explained that young people typically hit the polls at lower rates because they’re usually busier than retirees, who are more likely to vote because they have more free time. However, at Stony Brook University and across the United States, data indicates that more young voters are likely to cast ballots in 2020.
Groups like Generation Vote (GenVote) are working to appeal to younger people and teach the importance of political activism and voting. Disha Singh, the group’s director of Digital Media, said Millennials and Gen Z’ers need to realize the political power they possess.
“This young generation is the largest multiracial generation and also the largest voting block,” Singh said. “They’re passionate and want change. We have numbers — older generations are feeling threatened by that. It’s so important for young people to get into the fight for our future.”
Using social media platforms to spread the group’s messages, GenVote seeks to not only inform younger people about the issues themselves but to also get them involved in the electoral process.
“Voting is the bare minimum, but we want young people to get more involved in the literal process of voting, like poll watching or other jobs,” Singh said.
Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person activities more difficult, it has not stopped GenVote from continuing their work, Singh said.
GenVote has participated in protests and worked with lobby officials for voting reform. Singh explained that there has been a shift in activism, with young folks leading.
“It’s made our work so much more important,” she said.
Advocacy groups aside, the race to get young people to the polls is happening at colleges too. Stony Brook’s Center for Civic Justice members have committed themselves to helping students embrace the political world.
Since June, the Center says that they have helped over 3,000 students register to vote or update their voter information and assisted over 2,000 with getting their absentee ballot.
Providing assistance to students on and off-campus, they have hosted events and debates, and made partnerships with other groups to ensure that students understand what and how to engage with this election cycle.
As Steven Adelson, the coordinator for the Center for Civic Justice explained, the goal is to not just register students but to also encourage them to be involved in the discussion.
“Elections have consequences; who we elect and what we vote for will determine the direction of our communities for years to come,” said Adelson. “It is important that students recognize this now, invest in understanding their communities and become lifelong voters.”
The Center reports having an 11.2% increase in student registration from 2019 to 2020. They expect the final number to increase as more data is collected.
Both the Stony Brook University College Democrats and the College Republicans have also made an effort to inform the campus community about voting and encourage voter engagement. Both organizations have hosted phone bank events throughout the semester, where student volunteers call voters and encourage them to get out and vote for their party’s candidate.
“It can be challenging for many to express their opinion, but by voting, you can let your voice get heard,” Declan Graham, a senior political science and economics double major and president of the College Democrats, said. “Many local races are determined by a handful of votes. It can make a large difference.”
“As a citizen of the United States, our democracy relies on your vote to ensure the success of our nation,” Kenneth Rothwell, a junior sustainability studies major and president of the College Republicans, said. “Every vote really does count.”
While talks of the importance of voting are unavoidable, this does raise a major question: Will this finally be the year young people vote?
Ryan said he expects to see a higher turnout of younger voters. But as he explained, there is a catch.
“Young people will probably turn out at higher rates this year — young people have in previous elections turned out at decently high rates, but typically all age cohorts turn out at higher rates in those elections,” Ryan said. “So, if young people turn out at high rates in 2020, I’d expect middle-aged people and older people to turn out at even higher rates too.”
This information follows voter turnout data, which typically sees an increase during years where the presidency is up for grabs.
Both Graham and Rothwell anticipate a higher voter turnout from students this year.
Singh said she believes the outcomes of this election will look different from 2016, with more young folks turning out, citing data from early voting studies conducted so far this year.
“It’s our country and our world,” she said. “We should all be fighting for it.”